The end of King Lear

Sunday afternoon, I went to a reading of King Lear hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. It was my first visit, and the group, which had been reading King Lear for months, had come to Act 4 Scene 7, after Cordelia has rescued Lear and he’s just waking up.

Before I attended, I re-read the play and re-watched two different productions of King Lear. I also for the first time looked more deeply into the Quarto differences. All that, combined with hearing the last scenes spoken again yesterday afternoon, made me feel, strongly, that the usual ending is wrong.

I think the play is about redemption. And for that to work, I think Lear’s journey is one from ignorance to awareness. Having him tip into delusion at the end may make the audience feel better (“aww, he died with hope”), but it rings false for the story.

Bear in mind that Shakespeare invented this ending; his source material has Cordelia and Lear winning the battle and ruling jointly over a reunited kingdom. Also bear in mind that the play as it comes down to us is much too long for two hours’ traffic on a stage – directors need to make cuts.

So, as to the ending, my version of King Lear (which I have yet to see outside my imagination’s theater) would dispense with everything from 5.3.311 to 5.3.322, combining Lear’s “Howl, howl” speech with “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all.” So, as Lear bears Cordelia’s limp body to center stage, his part would read,
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever!
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou sayest?

And here I’d have him pause for a half line of silence as Cordelia says … nothing. It’s a dead echo of her living response to him in 1.1, which Lear is very consciously, painfully re-enacting. Then:
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

And, yes, that cuts the well-known “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman” line, but I’ve never been fond of it and I think it distracts from Cordelia’s later role as a warrior queen. Like her sisters, she’s very much Lear’s child.

Later, when Kent informs Lear that
All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly,
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.

And Lear responds,
Ay, so I think.

I think Lear is, in fact, fully aware of the possibilities. Cordelia’s death was the moment of his awakening.

So, when Albany says, about Lear,
He knows not what he says; and vain is it
That we present us to him.

And Edgar agrees,
Very bootless.

That’s merciful, but wishful, thinking on their parts. Lear has an elevated state of Zen-like clarity, seeing beyond what’s right in front of him. It’s something Albany and Edgar lack just now.

Finally, I’d have a re-punctuated Q1 death scene for Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
O, o, o, o, (dies)

I like that Lear’s final coherent words are words of genuine gratitude to an anonymous servant. The Q2 death scene varies in that it has one more O, which matches the number of nevers, but I like having that fifth O hanging unspoken.

And I would end the play there, the lights going black on a devastated stage filled with bodies. We don’t need to know the post-war management details. The play is named King Lear; it is Lear’s story, and with him the story ends.

Yes, this may seem an ending cheerless, dark, and deadly. But I like that Lear, in death, has all the awareness in the world: he knows Cordelia is dead, dead, dead, and that the ruination of his house and kingdom is all his fault. That’s a glorious, beautiful triumph. Lear is awake; he sees the truth of things as they really are. He doesn’t live to profit by it, but that’s the beauty of it, too. It’s an end, and that achieved, I think, is the end.

One final thought. If ever an evening’s entertainment needed a closing jig, this would be it. And I would have one.

Ad Blog posts inspired by literature

Work and real life does interfere with my literary pursuits. But, here are a few recent additions to my Ad Blog that were inspired by literature.

Falstaff and reputation management: I think Falstaff is Shakespeare’s single greatest creation. Emphasis on creation.

Twelfth Night and product placement: The version I watched was the 1969 production featuring Joan Plowright as Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, and Alec Guiness as Malvolio.

Robert Burns and creating tradition: In collecting folk songs, Burns rewrote several, altering the very thing being preserved. But then, that, too, is a tradition.

My favorite editions of Shakespeare’s plays

Different editions of Shakespeare's plays
My motley assortment of editions of Shakespeare’s plays

A video by BooksandQuestions on YouTube started me thinking about the editions of individual Shakespeare plays I like the most. I have a motley assortment of editions, but over the years I’ve developed distinct preferences.

I still own and refer to the big Riverside Shakespeare (sixth printing, 1974) I bought and used in college. I like it because it has all the plays and poems, interesting and scholarly play introductions, and explanatory footnotes. Plus, it has my own course annotations and scribbled scraps for various papers. My Riverside has more room along the outside edges for marginalia than other one-volume collections I’ve seen. But it’s an unhandy thing to carry around, and impossible to read while lying in bed at night, which is when I have the most time to read.

I also have two Complete Works editions on my Kindle. An e-reader is terrific for carrying around and reading in bed. One is from Latus ePublishing, the other is an Oakshot Press e-edition. Both normally carry a nominal cost but are frequently available free. Both contain all the attributed plays and poems, except The Two Noble Kinsmen. Unlike the Riverside, both use full names for characters, a major aid to readability. Both have hot-linked tables of content for the entire volume and within each play, so they’re fairly easy to navigate. Neither has line numbering or explanatory footnotes within the works.

The Latus e-version has a short general introduction to Shakespeare and his works.

The Oakshot e-version has extensive biographical information, illustrations from the Folger library, and a slew of terrific essays, including Tolstoy’s, plus Samuel Johnson’s notes on the plays and Hazlitt’s notes on characters. The biographical and critical contents have click-to footnotes. The only annoying thing about the Oakshot e-edition, and it’s very minor, is that every time you navigate to a new section, it pops up an ad for Oakshot Press.

Of the two, I use either for the plays themselves, but lately I’ve been enjoying exploring the additional content in the Oakshot. I’ve also found it handy to have two versions so that I can have two plays open at the same time and toggle back and forth between them.

My most-preferred format is the individual play paperback. It’s small enough to carry, light enough to read lying down, spacious enough to annotate, and, when bought used, cheap enough to beat up in use. Most editions have character names written out in full. And, I can easily flip back and forth between several plays.

My favorite editions are from the Bantam Classic series edited by David Bevington. They’re coat-pocket-sized paperbacks, with concise explanatory footnotes. The introductory sections include biographical and cultural boilerplate, plus a solid section about the play in performance, covering notable stage and screen adaptations.

But the main draw, for me, is that each Bantam Classic Shakespeare play also contains the play’s source text or a close approximation. So you get the history plays, but you also get the relevant chunks from Holinshed; you get Othello, but you also get a bespoke translation of the story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi; you get Hamlet, but you also get an overview of Amlethus from Saxo Grammaticus’ Historia Danica, a mention of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and a comprehensive excerpt from an Elizabethan-era English translation of Belleforest’s The History of Hamlet, which was in large part Grammaticus translated into French.

For me, the Bantam Classics are the ideal combination of annotations, source texts, performance notes, readability, spacious formatting, price, and portability, and I hope they don’t become wildly popular because so far I’ve been able to pick them up for pocket change at used book stores.

I also hunt for unstiffened copies of the older Signet Classic editions edited by Sylvan Barnet. Like the Bantams, they’re pocket-sized paperbacks, and contain source texts and a history of stage and screen performances. The appendices include Hazlitt’s notes on characters and occasionally scrappy essays by eminent students of Shakespeare. It’s worth noting that Isaac Asimov credited the Signet Classic series with inspiring Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

I have a Signet Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III that I treasure for its thick compactness and extensive introductory materials to each play, and a ragged Signet Henry V that I would keep if only for Diana E. Henderson’s fiery defense of Queen Isabel as an essential character. Like the Bantams, Signet’s footnotes are concise: they define and explain, but don’t exactly invite further study.

For that, I like the Arden paperbacks. I have a few from the third (current) edition. They contain source texts and truly extensive explanatory footnotes, which sometimes divert me completely from the play text. However, they abbreviate character names. They are larger than the Bantams and Signets. And, the added sections focus on contemporary literary criticism and commentary. These, too, are things to geek out over, but I like having more performance notes. Even used, Ardens tend to be priced a level or two above the Bantams and Signets, but they also look and feel nicer.

The RSC editions focus, as you’d expect, on the play in performance, with an insider’s review of past productions and interviews with notable Shakespearean actors and directors. Like most editions, they contain introductory information about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater. However, they lack much information about Shakespeare’s source material. Like the Arden books, RSC books are slightly oversized, so they don’t slip easily into a jacket pocket, and tend to be priced a level or two up from the Bantams at used book stores.

Given budget and shelf space I could easily see myself owning both Arden and RSC editions of the same play, but the Bantam Classics and Signet Classics are, for me, more-portable and provide enough of the benefits of the other two combined to keep me happy.

Now we’re into a second tier of preferences, which in one case may be put down to unfamiliarity. My sole Oxford edition (Pericles) has terrific footnotes and introductory content. However, although it discusses the Greek source text at some length it doesn’t reproduce it, instead reprinting an unmodernized First Quarto collation. Like the Ardens and RSC editions, Oxford editions use an oversized format.

Folger Library editions are respected scholarly works, with very good footnotes,  literary analyses, and sometimes quite opinionated essays. But I prefer editions with historical sources and performance notes. The Folger editions I have abbreviate the character names. (And I just noticed that, although I have at least six Folger paperbacks, none made it into the photo.)

Near the bottom of the bookshelf are the very inexpensive Dover Thrift editions, but even they have benefits that may suit some people. Their introductory overviews range from two paragraphs to two pages, so they lack contextual or analytical depth. And, they abbreviate character names. They do, however, have good footnotes, updated and expanded from the Caxton Shakespeare. And, because they are oversized and contain little more than the play itself, they are very thin: think of them as well-annotated scripts. The Dover Thrift editions are notable for their cheapness and simplicity.

I find the Pelican editions lacking in content beyond a general introduction to Shakespeare and the play. That said, they are pocketable, character names are written in full, and the relatively skimpy footnotes may be less distracting to some readers.

I am slowly replacing my lesser-liked editions with ones I prefer, based solely on what I find at used book stores. However, my bookshelf’s former occupants haven’t left my life entirely. I tend to move the supplanted editions to my car, where they live on as a sort of traveling library and provide me with ample reading material while waiting for the kids to get out of school.

What editions do you favor and why? Let me (and others) know in the comments section!

Punk Hamlet

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go”

– Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, as performed by The Clash.

The Hollow Crown/Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III

I was very excited to see The Hollow Crown return to my local PBS station with three new episodes. They condense Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III into three parts.

These plays are considered by some to be part of the Henriad and by others to be a separate minor Henriad. I consider them to be Margaret’s tetralogy. I’ve seen it in series only once before, in the magnificently conceptualized 1980s BBC-TV version directed by Jane Howell.

Despite lavish production values, I thought this new version fell far short of Howell’s mark, and I think that was down to the screenwriter and director. The actors were all magnificent, particularly Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret and Tom Sturridge’s Henry VI.

But the editorial cuts and directorial choices turned Shakespeare’s sweeping, subversive sociopolitical drama into a top-heavy look at the aristocratic elite. Almost all the common folk were eliminated, except as objects in massive CGI bloodbaths and carpets of hacked bodies.

The problem with that approach, is the commoners’ scenes are essential to the story for both counterpoise and emphasis. Early in Henry VI, Part 1, it’s a commoner, nay, the child of a commoner, who blows the powerful Salisbury into oblivion with one blast of an artfully aimed cannon (1.4). The mighty Talbot calls his common soldiers his “substance, sinews, arms, and strength” (2.3.63), and it is nameless soldiers of the opposing side who later overwhelm him and his son. Commoners drive the story forward through all three parts of Henry VI: La Pucelle’s shepherd father pleads for recognition, would-be con-man Saunder Simpcox and wife are exposed, citizens wronged by nobles petition for justice, oppressed apprentices fight their masters, pirates kill Suffolk, Jack Cade leads a peasant uprising (Cade himself trespasses upon a contented member of the middle class, Alexander Iden, who reluctantly fights and kills him, for which Iden rises to knighthood), a war-weary Henry encounters a Son who killed his father and a Father who killed his son, and in the end two keepers capture Henry.

In Richard III, a lowly jailer consoles the fallen Clarence, common murderers debate morality, ordinary citizens discuss the orderly transfer of power, and a mere scrivener blows the whistle on Richard’s deceit.

For all that, The Hollow Crown delivered a story edited for a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world, one in which the focus could safely rest on the top strata of government and culture and the populist movements that powered those events could be ignored.

The amazing thing is, 400 years ago, Shakespeare didn’t do that. He wrote a play that crossed socioeconomic lines, one that let commoners speak their minds, stand on their rights, do terrible things, and yet take on their social betters.

All of which made me think that perhaps there’s an interesting alternative version of the Margaret tetralogy: one in which the parts of the nobles are reduced and the commoners are emphasized. Yes, Henry VI with less Henry, Richard III with less Richard. And common people all over the place. It’d be the same epic story told from a different perspective, yet one that’s present in the plays themselves. That’s something I’d like to see. Come to think of it, that’s something I’d like to try to do. Hmm.

A collection of old posts on a few of Shakespeare’s plays

To get things started, here are links to some of my thoughts on several of Shakespeare’s plays, as they relate to advertising and marketing. They are posted on my Ad Blog.

Hamlet and pre-positioning

Othello and persuasion

Macbeth and equivocation

The Merchant of Venice and delusional economics

Henry V and creating the theater of the mind

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the dangers of overanalysis (uh oh)

The Merry Wives of Windsor and messaging

Shakespeare and making a living as a writer

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Welcome to MidLifeLit, online home to an ordinary guy looking at extraordinary literature.